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Midyear checkup: Five questions to test your financial fitness

Here’s one final assignment before you head off on a summer vacation from the daily grind of time and money pressures. Take this midyear personal finance checkup in five parts:

1. What have I done to protect my investment portfolio from a stock market decline?


The investors who get hit hardest in the next stock market downturn will be the ones who don’t make adjustments in their portfolios to address the market surge of the past five years. As I argued in my most recent Portfolio Strategy column, you don’t need to make drastic changes that involve selling your stocks.

Instead, ensure you have the same mix of stocks and bonds that you started out with. This may well mean buying more bonds and selling some stocks to get back to your target mix of investments. Pay no mind to the bond naysayers out there. If you want something in your portfolio that hangs tough when stocks fall, you need some bonds.

2. What have I done to ensure my retirement savings are on track?


You have a registered retirement savings plan, tax-free savings account or company pension, but will they pay you enough to cover your needs after you leave the work force? Answering this question is the essence of retirement planning, not picking investments.

Both individuals and advisers have to raise their game on retirement planning. Low interest rates are becoming a long-term issue, while increasing lifespans are raising questions about how people will afford health care in old age. How are you addressing these issues in your retirement thinking?

Here’s a list of online retirement resources that I compiled to help readers do a self-analysis. If you like the idea of paying for a consultation with a financial planner who doesn’t sell products, then check out this listing produced by MoneySense magazine.

3. What have I done to reduce debts?

Don’t be lulled into complacency by economists telling us that the rate of borrowing growth has slowed to rates not seen in more than a decade. Household debt balances are still growing at rates that exceed wage gains. Before year’s end, resolve to make at least one decisive move to reduce the amount you owe.

If you’re carrying persistent credit card debt, cut the card up, freeze it in a block of ice or otherwise make it unavailable for use. If you’ve settled into a routine of just paying the interest owing on your line of credit every month, aim to pay off at least a few hundred dollars in principal in the months ahead.

Mortgages (as I argued in a recent column) shouldn’t be emphasized at the cost of retirement saving. But this assumes you’re making accelerated biweekly mortgage payments instead of paying monthly and thereby reducing the life of your mortgage by three years or so. If you pay monthly, aim to make one double-up payment before the year’s out. Rules differ from lender to lender, but generally this means adding an equal or lesser amount of cash to your usual payment. The additional money goes straight to your outstanding principal.

4. What have I done to make sure my parents’ finances are in order?

Today’s seniors developed their financial habits before the explosion of debt and consumerism, but they also spent their working years at a time when 80 years was a long life. The stresses on retiree finances can be seen in data showing that seniors have the fastest growing debt loads in the country (although from a low base).

Here’s how to start a conversation with your parents about money: Tell them you’re planning your own retirement and want to get their input. Find out what’s working and not working for them. See if they’re paying their bills on time, how their savings are holding up, whether they’re borrowing or running a credit card balance and, finally, whether they have a cash reserve to cover long-term health care costs.

5. What have I done to make my kids better money managers?

Regardless of how old your kids are, the most important thing you can teach them about finance is the discipline of saving. Spend some, save some. That’s personal finance at its most basic.

A lesson for teens and older adults: You can’t have it all. A house in the city, big spending on entertainment and travel and a well-funded retirement cannot co-exist with the jobs and salaries that many adults have these days. Let’s make the next generation more realistic about money than its free-spending parents.

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